Love, adventure, and a steaming good time.
As the French army leader’s bastard son, Cornelius Stevens enjoys a great deal of latitude. But when he saves an enemy soldier using clockwork parts, he’s well aware he risks hanging for treason. That doesn’t worry him half as much, however, as the realization he’s falling for his patient.
Johann Berger never expected to survive his regiment’s suicide attack on Calais, much less wake up with mechanical parts. To avoid discovery, he’s forced to hide in plain sight as Cornelius’s lover—a role Johann finds himself taking to surprisingly well.
When a threat is made on Cornelius’s life, Johann learns the secret of the device implanted in his chest—a mythical weapon both warring countries would kill to obtain. Caught up in a political frenzy, in league with pirates, dodging rogue spies, mobsters, and princesses with deadly parasols, Cornelius and Johann have no time to contemplate how they ended up in this mess. All they know is, the only way out is together—or not at all.
Though Cornelius Stevens had thumbed his nose at his father’s international conflicts since he was old enough to understand what the word war meant, the night he rescued the Austrian soldier from a pile of dead bodies was the first time his disobedience had gone as far as treason.
He’d gone out, as it happened, to spite his father, who had ordered Conny to attend the local magistrate’s dinner party. “A good friend of mine will be there and is looking forward to meeting you,” his letter had said, and then it had gone on to promise Cornelius a hefty raise of his allowance and the set of Italian tools he’d been coveting in exchange for his presence at the event. Normally that would have been enough to lure Conny into even the most dull official gathering, but the letter had arrived with the evening paper, whose headline celebrated the archduke’s victorious conquest of Switzerland in the name of France. Cornelius had been put off his breakfast at the thought of how many innocent people had died so his father could supply the worthless, lazy emperor in Paris with cheap aether, and he’d burned the letter from his father in his brazier, vowing he’d join the Austrian Army himself before he’d attend a dinner party where he’d hear nothing but the glories of the French forces.
Cornelius was not his father. He saved lives instead of taking them. He was a tinker-surgeon, apprenticed to the best tinker in France. He was a master of clockwork. He saw at least three veterans of his father’s horrible war each week, and he gave them surgeries for free and clockwork for cost, or for whatever the soldiers could afford. He was his father’s son, but he was a bastard son, in blood and in spirit. He would never celebrate the Empire’s appetite for war. He donned his white armband for peace with pride. He wouldn’t attend a dinner party where he knew they’d be celebrating more death.
So that evening Conny dined with friends and drank wine, enough to make him glib about the sirens’ warning of an invasion on his walk home, chalking it up to more hokum from his father. Until half a kilometer from his flat he heard the shelling.
Calais, the city that never saw much more than a dust-up between sailors on leave, was being invaded. Uncertain how to respond, Cornelius moved into alleys and side streets to complete his journey. He climbed barrels and stumbled over cats, sobering with every step as he made his way home through fog tinged with the tang of gunpowder. He wove his way into an industrial area, following the path of a service canal—and that was where he found the raft of dead Austrian soldiers.
At first he thought he was hallucinating. It happened more often than he cared to admit, if he worked too long without stopping to eat. But he’d eaten both lunch and dinner, and it had only been one bottle of wine, no absinthe. Also, he’d never hallucinated smells before. Gunpowder. Sea muck. Sweat. Blood.
As a tinker-surgeon, Cornelius knew the scent of life recently ended all too well. The small barge heaved with a stack of dead soldiers, almost six feet high. Each wore the same green-gray uniform with the Austrian insignia, now caked with blood and mud. Some stared sightlessly at the sky, some twisted to their side, gazing at a distant eternity. No one living rode along to shepherd the dead. They simply drifted along with the rest of the night garbage waiting to be disposed of downstream at the city incinerator. No need to guard dead enemies. No need to afford them courtesy.
It was the most horrific, inhuman spectacle Cornelius had ever seen.
This is the work of my father. This is the fruit of Archduke Francis Cornielle Guillory’s terrible, endless war.
Cornelius swallowed the lump in his throat. He’d spent the day erasing the poor Swiss invasion victims from his imagination only to stumble upon barges full of fuel enough for a lifetime of nightmares. Hundreds of men, dead at his father’s hand. It didn’t matter how many lives Cornelius saved in surgery, how many wounded soldiers he gave new life to with surgical clockwork. He realized, standing on the bank of the canal, his entire life was but a pebble in his father’s ocean of blood.
Shutting his eyes, Cornelius put a hand to his mouth and fought the urge to retch. A watery cough made him open his eyes again, and he saw a hand raise and lower feebly on the top of one of the piles of corpses.
One of the soldiers was still alive.
With a cry, Cornelius sprinted across the street, hopped over the rail and vaulted onto the barge.
He climbed the dead men, the soft squish of their faces and necks and creak-cracks of their bones making him shiver as he scaled the heap. Another cough from above spurred him on, and then, at last, when he grasped an arm for purchase, it tensed and flinched under his grip.
Life. I have found you.
“It’s all right. I’m here.” So much blood. The soldier’s legs were broken at odd angles, and the right one had a seeping stain that told Conny it was bleeding out. Shrapnel protruded from the man’s belly and chest, and one great piece of metal appeared to have gone through his left arm entirely. His left eye was a scarred, mangled mess—it wasn’t missing, but it had been highly damaged. If he could see at all out of that side, it wasn’t much. Though that wound wasn’t fresh. However he’d partially lost his sight, it wasn’t from this battle.
The soldier murmured something in slurred German and tried, weakly, to push Cornelius away.
Cornelius stilled him with one hand as the other continued his examination. “You’re badly injured. But everything here is treatable, I think. Certainly I could give you a new eye without any trouble. Your left arm must go, and I can’t promise good things for your right leg, but…well, you floated by the right one for the job.”
The man gasped in pain and tried again to shove Conny. This effort was even weaker, though, and when Cornelius’s hand brushed his, the soldier’s fingers tightened around his own.
Cornelius threaded their fingers together. “I’m so sorry this has happened to you. This is wrong. This war is wrong, this barge is wrong—you shouldn’t be here if you’re alive. You should be at a prisoner-of-war camp, and you should be accorded respect.” He swallowed a bubble of bitterness. “You should be at home. If you came to Calais, it should be for a holiday.”
The man opened his good eye and gazed at Cornelius through a haze of pain. Though he spoke in German, no translation was necessary for the look on the soldier’s face.
I’m going to die, and I’m afraid.
Cornelius drew the man’s hand to his mouth and kissed the bloody, dirty knuckles. “You aren’t going to die. I’m going to save your life.”
Letting go of the soldier, Conny hurried down the corpses and up the bank with his blood pumping as his mind raced through potential plans. When he spotted a small surgery on the corner down the way, he dashed to it, picked the lock and burst inside. Needles, medicine, antibiotic went into his bag, as well as three rolls of bandages. The surgeons had a gurney as well, bless them. Leaving a hefty pile of bank notes on the counter by way of apology, he dragged the gurney outside and toward the barge, which had by now drifted almost out of sight.
His lungs burned as he climbed up a second time, and he feared he would find the man dead after all—but no, the soldier babbled slurred, panicked German as Cornelius arrived.
“Calmez-vous.” Cornelius wished he could offer reassurances the man would understand. He gave him an injection of painkiller, another of antibiotic, and then, to make things easier, he dosed the man with just the faintest bit of aether.
He was glad for it, because even with the gas, the soldier cried out as Cornelius tried to set his limbs. Unfortunately, Conny quickly realized all the soldier’s extremities were crushed except for his right hand. Cornelius bound the wounds as best he could, devised splints out of bits of the ferry rail, and then, with great effort, rolled the man onto the gurney pallet and strapped him in, hoping against hope the shifting didn’t incur too much additional damage.
Getting the pallet off the heap nearly sent them both into the canal. The soldier was broad and tall, and Cornelius was not. Essentially the only way to transport him was to slide the poor man on the pallet as if it were a sled. Clamoring after, Cornelius hoisted the pallet back onto the gurney, unlocked the wheels and rattled into the alley toward his apartment above Master Félix’s shop.
Only God knew what Cornelius would have said if he’d run into anyone on the streets—but he didn’t. Everyone hunkered in cellars, praying they weren’t set upon by soldiers. There were no soldiers on the streets, however, save the one Conny wheeled into the night. Once back at the shop, he found Master Félix wasn’t at home, and the maid was long gone for the night, so Cornelius simply rolled the gurney into the elevator in the back, primed the crank and rode with his patient past the first-floor general tinker shop into the second-floor surgery.
As an apprentice to the most celebrated tinker-surgeon in all of France, Cornelius had seen his share of dire patients, but he’d never faced anything as intense and critical as this soldier, and he’d never done such an intensive treatment alone. He did his best to push his nerves aside as he washed his hands, donned his surgical apron, and dosed the soldier with so much aether he wouldn’t feel any pain well into the next week. Once that was done, he stripped the patient down and cleaned him head to toe.
So many wounds. Shrapnel in his belly and chest—some had gone into a lung, Conny was certain of it. The legs did have to go. Both of them, sadly, though the left leg only to mid-calf. The left arm too. For a moment, Cornelius wondered if he shouldn’t help the man cross over, instead of yanking him back to life. Then he remembered the look of naked terror on the man’s face, and resolve gripped him like a vise.
No. I am a healer, a fixer. I hate war and weep for all humans in pain. I will save this soldier. Whatever it takes. And I will give him clockwork so grand he won’t miss the flesh he’s lost.
Amputating and cauterizing the man’s mangled legs stopped the worst of the bleeding, though Cornelius did transfuse some blood into his patient to be certain he hadn’t lost too much. Perhaps it had been a bit of fancy to use his own blood from the stored pints, but he was a universal donor, was he not? Cornelius got rid of the soldier’s burned, crushed arm and sealed up that stump too. He wrapped the belly, then shifted his focus to the collapsed lung.
That was when he saw the bit of metal sticking out of the soldier’s chest, right above his heart. It was so low he’d missed it the first time, tangled in the man’s thick pelt of chest hair. But there was no missing it now.
It was the mortal wound. Conny skimmed his hand over the man’s thigh, scanning his patient’s body with new eyes, taking in the wounds old and new. It was the metal in the man’s heart killing him. Cornelius had healed everything else. If he healed that too, and fixed the lung, the man wouldn’t die.
Cornelius drew his bottom lip into his mouth as he stared at the stub of iron.
Seeing to that wasn’t simply cleaning him up. It was surgery. Clockwork surgery. And to finish the job, Conny would need to give the man a clockwork heart assist. That would be improving. Organ upgrades barely allowed to the gentry, given to an enemy soldier.
That would be treason.
Cornelius sucked his lip deeper into his mouth, biting nervously on the soft flesh.
Going any further than what he’d done was too much. He should give the man an overdose of aether and send him sweetly into death. He should do his duty, then find a pretty thing in a dockside bar or a stalwart sailor willing to let him cry on his shoulder before making him forget the shadows of war.
Cornelius let his gaze rest on the soldier’s big, battered body, his surprisingly pretty countenance beneath the scars, so innocent in sleep. Conny remembered the look of terror on his face and those whispered pleas. The weariness only war could bring. He thought of the dead Swiss men and women and children, who had done nothing but live in a country rich with aether the archduke needed to fuel his war.
He couldn’t save those victims. But he knew, if he let himself cross the line, he could save this one.
Probably he’ll die in surgery, Cornelius told himself as he washed his hands and sterilized his kit. He’ll die, and I can say I tried. Treason with no witness or lasting effect.
Except Cornelius did more than simply try.
Putting the Austrian on the Lazarus machine when the surgery went south was wrong. Siphoning off another pint of his own blood was foolish, because it made him woozy. Setting a tiny assistant pumping mechanism into a dying man’s chest was pointless—careless, even, since he’d end up burying thousands of dollars’ worth of intricate machinery if the man died, which he was highly likely to do.
But breaking into Master Félix’s vault to steal the clockwork heart once the pumping gear wouldn’t turn—that was certainly the most terrible thing Cornelius had ever done.
The clockwork heart was Félix’s masterpiece. He’d only shown it to Cornelius a month ago, after an evening of too much wine. “This is my masterwork, Conny, not that anyone can ever know about it. A clockwork heart. Not an assisting device but a fully clockwork organ, the first and only of its kind.
Completely replaces an organ made of flesh, and very possibly functions better than the pump God gave us. It would run forever, until the body gave out. It might well make a body perform better than a flesh heart could. It could change the world.”
“But that’s wonderful!” Conny had touched the clockwork heart reverently, imagining all the good it could do. “It could save so many lives. You should make more of them.”
“I will never make another one as long as I live, and no one will ever use this infernal machine. I only have it here because it was no longer safe where it had been hiding. Soon I must move it again. Unless I can work up the courage to destroy it.” Félix turned to Conny, sodden with wine but burning with intensity. “You must never tell anyone about this. Not a single soul. Not ever.”
Cornelius hadn’t told anyone. Not even Valentin, his longest, dearest friend. But he knew the heart hadn’t yet moved on to wherever Félix intended to hide it next, and he hadn’t destroyed it. As the Austrian soldier lay dying, his heart of flesh too damaged to beat on its own, all Conny could think of was the perfect substitute locked away downstairs, lying useless with its owner vowing never to let it see the light of day.
Surely the safest place to hide the heart was inside of someone. A man who would not live without it.
Cornelius set the clockwork heart next to the mechanical pump, coaxed it into working independently before sewing it up inside the thin gold cavity he made in the man’s chest. He made a flesh-seal and tucked the access port under the man’s right arm, sealing it up with a cap that could pass for a mole to anyone who didn’t get close enough to see this mole had a tiny hinge. He stood over his patient, his own still-human heart thumping madly as he realized what he’d done.
Then it occurred to Conny, since he’d crossed one line, there was nothing stopping him from breaking as many rules as he needed to not only save his soldier but give him every advantage in whatever the next chapter of life brought him.
And that is precisely what Conny did.